The Truth About Nat Turner
By Sharon Ewell Foster (2011) (Edited)
On the 180th anniversary of the revolt, this author says his “Confessions” were a lie.
“The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.,” as told to Thomas Gray, is accepted as the primary historical source document on the uprising in the predawn of Aug. 22, 1831, that left more than 50 whites dead. The pamphlet was the basis of novelist William Styron’s fantasy novel of the same name.
Assumed to be a Baptist preacher, Nat Turner has been referred to as “a religious fanatic” whose uprising, erroneously considered the only successful U.S. revolt of enslaved Africans and African Americans, still garners regular mention in the news — particularly as the U.S. commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
In the original “Confessions”, Gray asserts that he was Turner’s defense attorney. Gray further claims that Turner’s confession was read in open court and affirmed by Turner at his trial. As part of a five-year research effort, I located the 1831 Virginia trial transcripts. Courtland, Va., is a sleepy rural town with tree-lined streets. Even in 2011, it is not hard to imagine the citizens of what was then called Jerusalem, Va., going about their daily activities.
The building that housed Mahone’s Tavern, once owned by the family of Confederate Gen. George Mahone, still stands. Age has collapsed others, and there are others that were the homes of enslavers — tiny buildings not bigger than shacks — that whisper a different song of the slavery system than the one we’ve been sung. They sing of a slavery where poor farmers who could barely feed their families owned enslaved people for status, trying to live up to a Southern ideal.
Standing in the courthouse, my hand touching the actual handwritten trial records, I was transported. An African-American woman like me would not have been allowed in the courthouse in 1831. Still, I could imagine the court clerk and the judges. I could imagine the shouting men and women outside the jailhouse demanding Turner’s life.
It took me a moment to adjust to the script; though it was slow going, eventually it got easier. I began with Turner’s trial. Immediately, I noticed that Thomas Gray was not Turner’s attorney. [James Strange French is listed in the records as Nat Turner’s lawyer. See Wikipedia. There is no relevant information on Thomas Ruffin Gray. TMB] Then I read that Turner pleaded innocent. There is no mention in the transcript of a confession or of Gray. [Worse, even the pamphlet cites: “The prisoner introduced no evidence.” TMB]
I felt betrayed. We have been taught to trust the transcribed “primary-source” documents, like trusting the word of a parent or a priest. I was filled with questions. What other historical “truth” that I accepted was really fiction? If Gray’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was not true, then what had actually happened? Who was Nat Turner, really?
That afternoon of discovery led me to other revelations, like the roles played by a Virginia congressman and a prosecution witness, Levi Waller, in Turner’s trial. Waller was a poor farmer, well-known for his illegal still. A self-proclaimed eyewitness, he testified at several of the trials against Black people. Though his testimony appeared to change at each trial, his evidence resulted in the deaths of many Black people. It appears that he botched things at Turner’s trial as abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison kept close watch. [?! William Garrison started The Liberator only in June 1831, a year after his release from jail. A North Carolina grand jury indicted him for distributing incendiary material, and the Georgia Legislature offered a $5,000 reward for his capture and conveyance to the state for trial. (See Britannica and Wikipedia.) He was no witness of this case. TMB]
There were dozens of other trials related to Turner’s revolt. Rep. James Trezvant sat as a judge at most of them, including Turner’s trial — though his name is excluded as judge in Gray’s pamphlet. [His name is in the pamphlet at the end. TMB] Trezvant fed stories of the uprising to newspapers, controlling the spin, and soon Turner’s infamy spread far and wide — he became a household name.
Southerners reacted with fear and anger. It is estimated that hundreds of enslaved Africans and African Americans and freemen were murdered by whites in the wake of the uprising. The severed heads of some were placed on poles as a warning. (The place still bears the name Blackhead Signpost Road.)
In the face of Southern anger, abolitionists like Garrison opined that slavery’s chickens had finally come home to roost.
Garrison reported on Turner’s revolt and, no doubt, followed developments in the related trials. What I found puts everything we believe about Nat Turner and what happened in the uprising in question. We have been misled by a 180-year-old lie.
This is an American story. It is time the truth was told.